Monday, November 18, 2013

! by Amy Krouse Rosenthal and Tom Lichtenheld

Technically, I guess, the title of this book is !. That’s all there is on the cover, anyway. A picture of a smiling exclamation mark. (To be fair the spine of the book does say exclamation mark, but I like the idea of a book having just punctuation as a title.)

What do you do if you stand out? What if, in a lineup of periods, you stand taller than the rest? That’s the question facing our main character, an exclamation mark. At first his response is to conform. Can he smoosh that tall thing above him? Flatten it into, I don’t know, some sort of squiggly hat or home-perm-looking-hairdo? Can one change who they really are?

The answer should be clear to us all. No. We are who we are, and we should be happy with that. Unfortunately many of us - adults and children - aren’t satisfied with our uniqueness, let alone amazed and thrilled by it, choosing rather to fit in with those around us.

And sometimes it takes a question mark to help us see why our uniqueness should be celebrated, not hidden.

After being bombarded by questions from this new questions mark acquaintance, he finally has enough. “STOP!” he screams, providing the final punctuation himself. His exclamation is surprising. He tries a “Hi!” and a “Howdy!” followed by a “Wow!” This new-found skill - or newly appreciated uniqueness - was amazing.

“It was like he broke free from a life sentence.”

And off he goes, to share what he can do with the world, including his old friends, the periods.

Even if the title of the book isn’t clear (Is it words? Punctuation?), we are sure of the author and illustrator. It’s the dynamic picture book team of Amy Krouse Rosenthal and Tom Lichtenheld. They’re the team behind books like The OK Book, Duck! Rabbit!, and It’s Not Fair!, and ! (or exclamation mark) is an equal addition to their impressive list of titles.

Saturday, November 9, 2013

Dead End in Norvelt by Jack Gantos

When I picked up Dead End in Norvelt, I knew nothing about towns like Norvelt, Pennsylvania. What I did know about were books by Jack Gantos, especially his Joey Pigza series, a personal favorite. And after the first few chapters, I became more familiar with what I already knew. In the first six chapters alone there’s an accidentally fired Japanese WWII rifle, blood all over the place, an old lady cooking her hands and taking a bite, and a great fart scene*.

What’s not to like?

Then I started to learn about Norvelt, a town created to give disadvantaged people and families a chance for a new life during the Great Depression as part of the National Industrial Recovery Act. These homestead communities were championed by Eleanor Roosevelt and were built on the idea of cooperation between residents. The town’s name itself honors Mrs. Roosevelt, eleaNOR rooseVELT.

Don’t worry. Dead End in Norvelt did win the Newbery Medal and the Scott O’Dell Award for Historical Fiction, but it’s no history book.

Jack gets grounded during the summer of 1962. (His grounding has to do with the Japanese WWII rifle, among other transgressions.) His only escape is helping his neighbor, Miss Volker, an original Norvelter, write obituaries for the town’s original residents. Most of the men have died, victims of black lung disease, but now the ladies are dying, and dying rather quickly. When the town starts getting suspicious, readers quickly start to see numerous suspects.

What’s the motive? Could it be jealousy? Love? Greed? Could all the deaths be accidental? And what will Jack do now that he’s found himself in the middle of it?

I see three main parts of the book. The first third is all about Jack, his parents, and Miss Volker. The middle expands to include more about the other community members. The last third turns murder mystery. Now that you know, pay close attention as your read the first two-thirds, knowing there’s a mystery to solve. It makes everyone more suspicious and the book that much more enjoyable.

When you get your copy of Dead End in Norvelt, make sure to locate a copy of the sequel, From Norvelt to Nowhere, as well. This is one of those books that you won’t want to end, and one of the rare times that the sequel lives up to its award-winning predecessor.

*Ha! When I went back to edit what I wrote, I found that I had mistakenly typed scene as scent. This doesn’t affect my review in the slightest, but considering the context . . . Well, I thought it was funny. Thought I'd share.